Upon us first is the problem of the definition that underpins the premise: the Favorite Game. It is the core linguistic tension between the brevity of an expression and the preciseness of significance one wishes to convey—I hold this simple phrase up to the light like a quantum prism to account for all that it might mean, only to be confronted with all the entanglements of my own experience within it. Thankfully the scope of the question has been preemptively limited by the context of its originating forum, but even then it is a daunting undertaking. One could propose for instance the Favorite Game is the game which somehow best represents to the player the attractive qualities of the general activity of computerized gaming, in charging the player with using her wits and reflexes to perform series of tasks or rise to meet sets of challenges of increasing difficulty according to some set rule of logic in order to win (or, in more open-ended forms) succeed to a length and degree of personal satisfaction, while also engaging the senses via its artistry, creativity and originality in such a way as to make the whole experience more memorable. And if I were to choose this as my definition, then perhaps a Metroid or Zelda, or A Sim City , or to truly reveal my age, Sid Meier’s Pirates! from the days of ye olde Tandy and Amiga. Each of them with interesting musical legacies worthy of exploration (particularly Pirates!, as there is little more charming in this world than listening to Baroque-era ditties come bleeting out of a Tandy speaker).
Which segues to the next possibility to consider: the Favorite Game being the one that simply evokes the most nostalgia in a player, representing perhaps not any sort of perfection in the medium, but instead some period of one’s past—a time in life that seemed simpler and happier than that which came before or after. These days nostalgia has become something of a dirty word, and perhaps we should utter its name only under our breath when speaking of those things we loved in days gone by, lest our fond recollections stray into the boardrooms of cynical corporations set upon commoditizing our affection for these artifacts. But it is interesting how a period of time can somehow be encoded or encapsulated in the memory of playing a certain game, hearing its music. Even when so many of the other memories of that time lie buried under the ash of burnt-up brain cells, crumbling and irretrievable, that feeling lingers like a ghost or spirit, waiting to be summoned up by a song, the clattering of an old spacebar, fuzzy sprites outracing scanlines across old analog screens.
Perhaps here I’d have chosen Thexder, and ruminated on its beautifully ominous rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and its single in-game track whose title I never learned, if it had any name at all, somehow signifying the entirety of one poor transforming robot’s struggle to make it through 24 brutal levels of crazy alien robot things all bent on destroying him.
But the Favorite Game could also as easily be the game with the narrative that most engaged the player beginning to end—of which Thexder would be an entirely poor example. Games with more literary or cinematic ambition than a robot that turns into a fighter jet would be better applicants to the title if this is the definition that is settled upon. And these games do lend themselves fluidly to musical discussion—generally testing the range of their scores’ composers as their narratives progress, tasking them with reflecting and supporting on-screen action or the emotional or psychological developments of the stories’ characters, building tension or punctuating satisfying and well-earned catharses.
Narrative need not be internal to the game either; there are other layers to consider when talking about narrative in gaming—the narrative a player might enjoy creating for her on-screen avatar for instance, a biography and trajectory of the player’s own creation, which sometimes though not necessarily co-exists with a narrative provided by the game’s authors, but ultimately guides the player’s approach to and experience with that game. And then there’s also the meta-narrative—the story of the gamer herself, perhaps starting with the acquisition of the game itself, even before playing it, and only then in the mastery it (or the never-ending attempt). In defeating friends in a 3-on-1 game of Goldeneye for example; perhaps in conquering or nearly-so that seemingly-impossible platformer while being oblivious to the existence of a skill or upgrade or bit of equipment that would have have made the experience decidedly less so; pulling off some ridiculous stunt or rare special move; maybe winning a tournament and a big pot of prize money; perhaps something even as simple as exploring every little facet of that game, knowing it, understanding its underlying mechanics, writing a FAQ or hacking it to make it harder, better, or something else entirely.
If considering only the first of these layers, perhaps I’d offer up Final Fantasy Tactics in its original incarnation—an intelligent, grounded story balanced very well with its the gameplay and its mechanics. If the second, Tactics again might be a fine choice, though I would lean again to my beloved Pirates! or Sim City, thinking of a time I stormed the forts of Panama outnumbered 10-to-1 and plundered it of all its gold, or that beautiful city I salvaged (without cheating) in Sim City 3000 after an earthquake devastated it.
But it is the latter-most these narrative-layers that provides me with the most interesting subject I think, because if we define the Favorite Game simply as the one the player has spent the most time with, then for me that game is undoubtedly NHL 2k3 for the Playstation2—a game whose music consists of a couple of original, if wholly uninspired, pieces of menu music that some poor bargain-rate conscript was likely tasked with whipping up in a day or two; some handfuls of generic, cheesy stadium rock and organ tunes; and (most notably) the ESPN Sportcenter theme song circa 2003 or thereabouts.
Even if you generously include the sound-effects, the “musicality” of the slap shots and body checks, the game really falls pretty short of anything remotely memorable. Sonically it might be the least impressive game ever made, relative to its contemporaries, even within its own genre. Even the in-game commentary is cut-rate, slightly cringe-worthy but not nearly enough to be fun. Though to its credit—having occasionally endured EA’s grating, crappy rock playlists in the years since—there’s something to be said about a game whose music can quickly be dismissed to the background even without shutting it off. And that is I think what interests me about it here, with regards to the theme posed. Acquired as a Christmas present in December of 2002, years went by, I wore out one PS2, and nearly another, (in fact, when the first PS2 croaked, I bought NHL 2k3 for the Gamecube too, I loved it so much) playing thousands of games, simulating hundreds of seasons. And round about the time when I started to long for current rosters (being a Red Wings fan, having Henrik Zetterberg available only to Team Sweden and Pavel Datsyuk not being the best player in the game eventually proved intolerable), instead of simply buying a new-and-improved hockey game as any normal person would, I chose instead to hack my NHL 2k3 and update its rosters myself. Having little experience in the matter of programming or game hacking for that matter, it was a great learning experience, tinkering with MIPS opcodes and writing out while- and for-loops to unravel the mysterious natures of byte structs and bitfields. Not only did I succeed in the original endeavor, but I also managed to cure a few annoying bugs along the way, and made some other alterations that added new-found interest to the game for myself. I also discovered how little data on the disc was actually present in the finished product, providing an insight into the process of actually producing a game, which always seemed a magical and mysterious thing to me: perhaps less than half of all the recorded play-by-play and commentary is ever heard while playing; functions for a waiver draft gathered cobwebs in a dusty corner of the elf binary; prototypes for high-sticking and other penalty calculations existed without actual code to run—all indications that the real reason for its original $30 dollar price tag on release was its incomplete state and not so much the tactical attempt to undercut EA’s market stranglehold that I long believed. But I loved it all the same, and still do—that it came to the world already discounted only endears it to me more—its publisher, Sega, earned my respect in its honorable offer, knowing the faults of its product, which it seems many current developers/publishers could learn from. I replaced Jeremy Roenick’s bland title screen with the far-more impressive image of Datsyuk pulling the Datsyukian puck-drag on poor Marty Turco; I re-purposed the waiver draft functions and made high-sticking calls available (kinda), and made the occurrences of other penalties follow more realistic rates. I taught the computer that it could make trades more than once a century and stopped it from changing its goalie after four goals allowed regardless of the difference of score and situation. In sum, my meta-narrative was me making my own literal version of NHL 2k3.
Yet (finally the point), I never changed its music.
I could have, but it never even occurred to me do so. After all those hours, which easily sum into days, weeks, months, maybe nearly even a year of listening to that looping, artificially-upbeat ESPN jingle, it should have driven me to madness. So why did I never choose to change it? Why did I not even turn it off? I can hear it in my head now, but it invokes no emotion in me, no nostalgia nor aggravation. It is as if an inert entity, unable to interact in any meaningful way with the universe around it and so mainly benign in its pointless existence, outside of strengthening (such that it does) the ESPN-branding the game carries (which seems silly, because any ESPN-branded hockey game of the era lacking Gary Thorne and Bill Clement in the booth is truly pointless).
I feel as if there is something profound in there to be gleaned from that—a tao of utilitarian banality in game music and beyond as it were. There, but not. A memory you never had that you can never forget. But perhaps it is just that the song is already fading from between my ears, evaporating out them same ears, becoming its own noise floor, the hum of fluorescent lights and the whir of window and computer fans, the air whispering through the vents. It was never really worth writing about, was it? And in that, was probably worthy of every word.